The Power of Redemption: He Joined a Gang at 10, But Now He’s Free

img_2568“It’s easier to be part of a gang than to go to school.” That’s what a young man, who I’ll call Daniel (for his safety), told me when I met him in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The Egan Fellows and the rest of the CRS delegation had weaved our way up into the hills that surround the heart of the city, windows rolled down so that those looking out would be able to identify us and permit our safe passage. As we traveled on these winding dirt roads, I couldn’t help but wonder what jobs were available in this area, where businesses seemed largely absent and the homes were exceptionally modest. The beautiful view from the hills sharply contrasted with the poverty in the neighborhood.

Daniel joined a gang when he was 10 years old. He was in 4th grade. The gang gave him marijuana and cocaine to sell inside his school. He needed the money. Once he started dealing, he found that not only could he now provide for his basic needs, he could even help out his friends.

Looking back (and describing what he sees presently), he describes this type of recruitment as an epidemic. Gangs prey on vulnerable, naïve young boys who often don’t understand the dangerous path they have taken. When kids are playing on the soccer field, gang members stand in the corner or they approach them on the street, telling them how easy it is to earn a little money. Little by little they are drawn in, doing more tasks for the gang, and then they really start to move up in the gang “when they start killing people.”

Daniel continued to deal drugs in his school for a year and a half until his promotion. He became a “flag.” Flags keep lookout over a certain area, keeping tabs on everyone, always keeping an eye out for “strange people.” Daniel’s watch lasted until 4 AM. He kept an eye out for rivals, but also for the police, so that incriminating items could be hidden before a raid.

Some members of the police were on the gang’s payroll. They would call in advance of a raid so that they would have time to hide everything. Nevertheless, the raids often involved shootouts.

Daniel wasn’t there for one raid that turned violent. His 13-year-old friend was shot and killed. When he found out, he ran to see his bullet-riddled body. It was a devastating moment. But his first response was the desire for vengeance. Daniel doesn’t sugarcoat his state of mind at the time. He doesn’t pretend that he was more conflicted or struggling with reconciling his lifestyle and his values. He admits that he was immersed in a world of violence and the values that accompany it. Even with his close friend killed, he still felt “big and protected.”    Read More

The Death Penalty is Fundamentally Unjust

As the Church’s opposition to the death penalty grows stronger, a greater emphasis seems to be on the presumed inherent incompatibility of the death penalty with mercy toward the individual person facing execution, rather than its impact on justice or the common good. Depending on one’s theological views, this may be seen as a positive or unfortunate development. But the reality is that this debate should essentially be moot—the death penalty is fundamentally unjust. It undermines the common good, it cannot be fixed, and it has no place in modern society. As California voters get ready to address this issue, the LA Times has provided a succinct case for its abolition:

The chief reason to abolish the death penalty in California is that it is cruel and unusual punishment, both immoral and inhumane and out of step with “evolving standards of decency” in the United States. It has little deterrent effect, by most accounts, and is administered so capriciously that it makes a mockery of the concept of equal justice. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately put to death for crimes that bring other defendants merely a long prison sentence. Indeed, whether a murderer is ultimately executed often depends less on the gravity of his offense than on whether he committed it in a particular county or a particular state or was represented by a decent lawyer. The process is open to manipulation and mistakes, yet once the appeals process is complete, miscarriages of justice can never be corrected, for obvious reasons.

Even those who do not object to capital punishment on principle ought to support abolition because of the system’s inefficiency, exorbitant costs and long delays. Proponents of Proposition 66 say they can speed up the process and make the death penalty work, but there are serious doubts that their proposal would achieve the kind of fast-tracking they promise, and critics argue persuasively that the system might become even more expensive. And if it does succeed, it would likely require unacceptable compromises of basic constitutional rights, increasing the chance that innocent people might be put to death. In fact, about one in 10 of California death sentences eventually get overturned. There is too much at risk to speed up the process.

It is not needed to prevent crime. It hasn’t been shown to deter crime more than life in prison without the possibility of parole. It is arbitrary, capricious, and unfair. It reflects systemic injustices. And the specter of killing innocent people cannot be eliminated. Even for those who believe the death penalty can (in theory) be reconciled with love and solidarity for all, in practice, it is manifestly unjust and detrimental to human flourishing.   

Purchasing Recreational Drugs and Fueling Violence

Discussions of privilege are ubiquitous on the left these days, and the desire to make ethical purchases is common not only among “bourgeois bohemians” but a growing number of those who recognize a religious imperative to engage in ethical consumption. While scholars, activists, and everyday people try to figure out how to operate in the marketplace ethically and make it easier to do so, not enough attention has been given to the purchasing of recreational drugs that fuel violence and other grave evils. Perhaps because it is inherently immoral and chimerical to pursue happiness through recreationally altering one’s brain chemistry, the detrimental effect of drug use on social justice and the common good—particularly its impact on the poor and vulnerable—does not garner as much attention in religious circles as the incompatibility of drug use and human flourishing at a personal level. But for Catholics, the personal level is not the individual level—we are embedded in communities and our actions affect others, creating responsibilities toward these people. And for those who do want to “check their privilege” or to exercise the preferential option for the poor, this is a subject that can’t be ignored, as Mario Berlanga writes in a recent New York Times article:

Many of my friends and classmates here in the United States care about making the world a better place, and they try to make purchases that reflect their values. Some have become vegetarians to save animals or fight climate change. Others buy cruelty-free cosmetics, fair-trade coffee or conflict-free diamonds.

Yet I’ve noticed at parties and festivals that some of these same people pop Ecstasy or snort cocaine. They think this drug use is a victimless crime. It’s not. Follow the supply chain and you’ll find a trail of horrific violence.

In Mexico, the official death toll from the past decade’s drug trade stands at over 185,000, with many of the dead innocent bystanders. And these tallies don’t include the thousands of people who have disappeared, including four members of my family who were kidnapped and never seen again. We were deprived of our loved ones without explanation, without even their bodies to cry over….

The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, constitutes more than 30 percent of the global demand for illegal drugs, according to my calculations. Yes, there are addicts, but experts estimate that eight in 10 users — more than 20 million people in this country — take drugs recreationally….

If you think one person’s consumption is too small to make a difference, consider that $100 — what a recreational cocaine user might spend on a single weekend — buys the cartels 500 rounds of ammunition; $500 buys a new AR-15 rifle; $700 covers the monthly salary of one of their gunmen….

If you use illegal drugs, even just occasionally, please reconsider. Lives are at stake. Go for legal vices if you must. Even if you never use illegal drugs, you probably know people who do. Tell them about the trail of blood that led to their night of partying. If they had seen it firsthand, as I have, they wouldn’t buy those drugs.

We can shatter the misconception that recreational drug use is a victimless crime. We must put an end to the hypocrisy that allows people to make purchases based on their concerns about the environment, workers’ rights or animals — but not about killing people in Mexico.

Around the Web


Check out these recent articles from around the web:

In today’s troubling times, where are our faith leaders? by EJ Dionne: “Humble prophets are hard to find, especially in this election year, but they have a special vocation: to remind the skeptical that religion, which can indeed be divisive, is also a moral prod and an intellectual spark.”

Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl by Nicholas Kristof: “The reasons for the opposition then were the same as they are for rejecting Syrians or Hondurans today: We can’t afford it, we should look after Americans first, we can’t accept everybody, they’ll take American jobs, they’re dangerous and different.”

Paul Ryan unveils plan to set fire to the American health-care system by Paul Waldman: “Just imagine that: 20 million Americans losing their coverage all at once. Consider the parade of horror stories in the news about people being destroyed financially, and more than a few dying, because they can’t afford health care.”

‘Shedding tears for the injured children of Syria is not enough’ by  Zaher Sahloul: “Every life is precious. Omran has reminded us all of the terrible suffering of the children caught up in this war. Let us not forget them again.”

The New Ideology of the New Cold War by Jochen Bittner: “We need a new generation of Roosevelts, Adenauers and Monnets, leaders who will take on orderism’s challenge without lashing out at its adherents.”

Forming Our Children to Go Forth by Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy: “One of the hardest things to explain is that while neither political party shares all of our Catholic values, we cannot simply retreat from political life and its respective duties.”

How foreign money is being used to campaign against our abortion law by David Quinn: “The funding for the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment has come from an organisation called the Open Society Foundation which was established and is financed by one of the world’s richest men, billionaire George Soros. Some of the money goes to good causes. But Soros also favours the liberalisation of drug laws, laws against prostitution and laws against abortion.  We know that Soros is funding Irish pro-choice organisations because documents from his organisation were leaked.”

Trump’s most insidious claim yet by Michael Sean Winters: “He has now topped his list of outrageous things with a new charge, the most insidious to date. He has said that if he does not win the election this November, it will be because the election is rigged.”

More Chemical Attacks in Syria Highlight Costs of Inaction

The use of chemical weapons continues in Syria, as the international norm against their use crumbles through a lack of enforcement:

For the third time in just two weeks, chemical weapons were reportedly used against civilians in northern Syria. The United Nations is investigating the most recent case, which came Wednesday when barrel bombs thought to contain chlorine gas dropped on the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo, killing at least four people, including a mother and her two children, and wounding around 60 more.

Both the Assad regime and opposition forces have denied responsibility, but several witnesses and monitoring groups have said that helicopters dropped explosive barrel bombs on the affected neighborhood. Opposition forces, it bears noting, do not have helicopters….

Chlorine gas is classified as a choking agent, and when inhaled, fills the lungs with liquid and can lead to asphyxiation. Using it in a weapon is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Assad regime agreed to join after a 2013 UN investigation found that the nerve agent Sarin was used against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, killing 1,429 people, more than 400 of them children.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, meanwhile, has produced a new video on Aleppo, as it pushes for the protection of civilians from continued mass atrocities:

Over two years ago, in Time, I called Pope Francis’ handling of the war in Syria his “one big mistake.” Subsequent events have only reinforced my argument that the pope should have called on the international community to enforce the Responsibility to Protect. But the pope’s mistake pales in comparison to President Barack Obama’s, given the difference between moral and material leadership. Nicholas Kristof addresses Obama’s failure in his recent column on “Obama’s worst mistake”:

A crazed gunman’s attack on an Orlando club in June, killing 49 people, resulted in blanket news coverage and national trauma.

Now imagine that such a massacre unfolds more than five times a day, seven days a week, unceasingly for five years, totaling perhaps 470,000 deaths. That is Syria. Yet even as the Syrian and Russian governments commit war crimes, bombing hospitals and starving civilians, President Obama and the world seem to shrug.

I admire Obama for expanding health care and averting a nuclear crisis with Iran, but allowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy. It is also a stain on all of us, analogous to the indifference toward Jewish refugees in the 1930s, to the eyes averted from Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur in the 2000s.

This is a crisis that cries out for American leadership, and Obama hasn’t shown enough.

In fairness, Obama is right to be cautious about military involvement, and we don’t know whether the more assertive approaches favored by Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus and many others would have been more effective. But I think Obama and Americans in general are mistaken when they seem to suggest: It’s horrible what’s going on over there, but there’s just nothing we can do.

“There are many things we can be doing now,” James Cartwright, a retired four-star general who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me. “We can do many things to create security in selected areas, protect and stabilize those safe zones and allow them to rebuild their own country even as the conflict continues in other parts of the country.”…

One aim of such strategies is to increase the odds of a negotiated end to the war. Obama’s reticence has robbed Secretary of State John Kerry, who is valiantly trying to negotiate a lasting Syrian cease-fire, of leverage….

“Sitting idly by and allowing a government and its allies to systematically and deliberately bomb, torture and starve hundreds of thousands of people to death, that is not the solution,” Dr. Samer Attar, a surgeon from Chicago, told me. “Silence, apathy, indifference and inaction aren’t going to make it go away.”

Kristof also responded to critics online who argued Syria is complicated and the conflict has no easy, simple solution:

Thanks for your comments on my Syria column. Some of you disagree, noting–quite correctly–that Syria is complicated and risky with no perfect solution. That was also true of our options during the Bosnian, Rwandan, Darfur, Cambodian and Nazi genocides. But when you face mass atrocities like those unfolding in Syria, it’s no excuse to say, “it’s hard.” Cratering Syrian military runways with a missile strike from Turkey to make them inoperable might not work, but it might. Helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon get an education is rather easier, and we don’t do that either. The point is that every expert I consulted, military and civilian, agrees that there are steps we can take that will probably but not definitely help. If we continue to do nothing, hundreds of thousands more will die. Enough is enough.

We might expect libertarians to make such arguments—they oppose anti-poverty programs for the same reason they oppose action to protect civilians from mass atrocities. And, of course, it is easy to understand why pro-authoritarian Catholics and sectarian Christianists, who are rather indifferent to hundreds of thousands of Muslims being slaughtered, are pushing for inaction. But “it’s hard” or “it’s complicated” are weak excuses for those who believe the government can ensure everyone has access to affordable, quality healthcare or can end chronic homelessness, incredibly difficult, complex challenges. Perfection or nothing is a standard progressives (or anyone who believes in active government) would never embrace on these types of domestic issues. And they should reject that standard on foreign policy too. Syria is extraordinarily complex, but to believe that current and past policies have been optimal is to live in an alternate reality.

Listening to What Syrians Actually Want Instead of Assad’s Propaganda

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad of the University of Stirling has an excellent article in Dissent on the importance of listening to what Syrians want and acknowledging the reality on the ground:

If Syrians haven’t been heard, it’s not for lack of trying. There are compelling voices covering the conflict—reporting, analyzing, prescribing. All are ignored.

Syrians want self-determination, but they are thwarted by a ruthless regime backed by Russian arms and UN vetoes. Western governments are unwilling to act because they see no vital interests at stake in Syria; Western publics are leery because they see everything as a replay of Iraq; both are united in the patronizing, orientalist assumption that the stability of a state is more valuable than the rights of its people. The unfiltered Syrian story is thus an inconvenient one. It is far more comforting to treat Syria as a domestic debate in which right and wrong can be deduced from ideological principles rather than examined facts.

In spite of the erasure, Syrians have strived to ensure that the defective first draft of history does not become the final word. In images and words, they have tried to preserve an unvarnished record of the years of revolution and war. They have been aided in this by the heroic efforts of the Local Coordination Committees (a network of local groups organizing and reporting on civil society activism) and the White Helmets (a volunteer organization providing search, rescue, and medivac services), and by the painstaking record kept by the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Network for Human Rights….

Western civil society wasn’t stirred into action until the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore. The sympathy that was denied to Syrians as citizens fighting tyranny seemed more forthcoming as depoliticized victims seeking refuge. For four years most progressives had actively embraced, or tacitly internalized, the regime’s portrayal of all its opponents as Islamist terrorists, yet they were suddenly indignant when far-right xenophobes borrowed the same tropes to malign refugees. But in the middle of all this, as Putin intervened in Syria, generating new waves of refugees, many progressives saw no contradiction between their sympathy for refugees and their support (overt or unspoken) for Russia’s intervention.

Syrians have died overwhelmingly at the hands of the regime; they have been detained and tortured en masse by the regime; they have fled primarily because of the regime (the crimes are being better documented than “anywhere since Nuremberg,” according to American lawyer Stephen Rapp). To them, the regime is the root of Syria’s evil. But if, in spite of the facts, the dubious logic of lesser evilism has prevailed, it is because most Syrian people have been written out of their own story. Journalists, activists, intellectuals, politicians, and diplomats have participated in this erasure. Even the sympathetic ones have reported Syria mostly as a tableau of horrors. The horrors are undeniable, but what the story lacks is a chronicle of resistance—resistance against impossible odds, with grace, without hope, and through constant betrayal. Samar Yazbek, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al Shami, and others have ensured that the answer to “What do Syrians want?” is no longer a mystery.

Samer Attar, a surgeon with Northwestern Medicine in Chicago who volunteered in Aleppo, meanwhile, describes what it is like to see the regime’s crimes up close:

The hospital shook from the blast. The victims were not terrorists or soldiers. They were civilians shopping for the upcoming Eid celebration. Twenty-five people were killed. Dozens more were injured. There were not enough beds, so patients were placed on floors smeared with blood and body parts, with barely a place to step. Dead bodies were piled into the street to make room for incoming wounded.

The screaming never let up. Children covered in blood and dust and pockmarked with shrapnel screamed for their parents and siblings. Some would be reunited whole; others would learn whom they had lost, or which of their children’s limbs were missing or mutilated. Some had the bone shards of disintegrated bystanders embedded in their skin — routine findings after such attacks.

I saw a child, breathing but silent, with severe burns and his intestines protruding from his belly. His skin and hair were burned off. He died a couple of days later. A 5-year-old had just died before him due to respiratory failure — shrapnel from a bomb cut his spinal cord and paralyzed him from the chest down. One surgeon cut open a man’s chest in a last-ditch effort to clamp a bleeding vessel near the heart. It worked temporarily, but the man had lost too much blood, and there was no more blood to give him. Two children would later bleed to death in the operating room for similar reasons. I did an above-knee amputation on a stretcher in a hallway because all the operating rooms were full. Others whose limbs were traumatically amputated in the attack had to sit with tourniquets until an operating room opened. We later learned that a child had been decapitated by the blast.

Such slaughter occurred daily. Here, innocent civilians being blinded, amputated, burned, paralyzed, crushed and mutilated by bombs is the routine. Here, the world has shown little solidarity with innocents being massacred. This was not the work of the Islamic State. The terrorism I saw in Aleppo came from helicopters and jets in the sky.